Apple TV+’s lunar headache For All Mankind is headed to Mars for real this time. Three competing spaceships strive to make it to the red planet first to win a huge cash prize.
NASA holds some tricks up its sleeve to beat the wilier competition, but you can’t count out the Russians just yet. They’re always willing to do something stupid to make headlines. A mostly fine episode ends on a nice little cliffhanger to boot.
For All Mankind recap: ‘Happy Valley’
Season 3, episode 4: In this week’s episode, entitled “Happy Valley,” the Russians, the Americans and the other Americans are all launching their ships to Mars. The Russians only got that far because Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) gave them top-secret engine schematics to spare her would-be boyfriend Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk), whom the KGB was going to kill if she didn’t.
Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) isn’t as happy as he should be, even with Helios’ Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) giving poetic speeches and agreeing to split a huge sum of money with everyone at the company, including Ed’s ex-wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) and ex-NASA scientist Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster).
Ed and Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) buried the hatchet when Ed’s daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) joined the NASA mission. Of course, Danielle is also secretly fine with Ed’s outfit taking the lead, because NASA conceals an ace up its sleeve: a secret engine maneuver involving a solar sail that will place the government’s ship on Mars first. They’ll beat Phoenix to Mars by eight days.
It’s the economy, stupid
Meanwhile, Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) is fending off congressional oversight as an economic crisis looms. Wilson loves the Mars stuff, but America doesn’t really care (Americans are unequivocally right about this). There’s some new nuclear fuel source called Helium-3 that they discovered on the moon that’s responsible for the closing of coal mines and the like.
Larry (Nate Cordry) talks tough, but he and Ellen know they’re in trouble. Larry suggests a trip to NASA because there is nothing anyone on this show thinks can’t be solved by doing space stuff publicly. When they take their limo to NASA, there’s a huge protest and among the throng is Jimmy Stevens (David Chandler), Danny’s (Casey W. Johnson) brother.
He’s about to get into some anti-government mischief. He still has a chip on his shoulder because of how his parents Gordo and Tracy were valorized by a country that wouldn’t take full responsibility for causing their deaths by stoking the space race against the Russians. Jimmy meets one of the Marines who was on the moon when his parents died. He (Zac Titus) thinks it was a conspiracy — that Gordo and Tracy were sacrificed for some joint Russian/American resource-mining mission. It’s ludicrous but it is believable that there would be yahoos who think it.
Jimmy’s not the only one who’s bent out of shape. The Sojourner crew all saw the Dennis Quaid movie they made in For All Mankind’s universe about Gordo and Tracy Stevens, and they quote it all the time. It drives Danny crazy. He personally chastises anyone who has any fun with his parent’s memory. Ed sees this happening and realizes that Danielle may have been right about not bringing Danny to Mars because he’s not fit for the task mentally. Not that it does Ed much good now to realize it…
A meltdown in space
Kelly gets a weird transmission from Mars-94 while doing her radio broadcasts. The voice says they’re about to try something dangerous, but the guy has to leave before he can say what. Ellen Wilson is there when Margo and Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) see it a few minutes later; the Russians are burning their engines at an ill-advised rate to get to Mars first, but it could destroy their ship in the process.
And of course that’s what happens. The nuclear engines go into meltdown. They have 72 hours before radiation kills everyone on board. Ed Baldwin tells Danielle he’ll go rescue them, which means the Helios crew will never make it to Mars.
When Dev hears this, he goes apeshit. He demands Ed turn back on course and let NASA rescue the Russians, then deploys a software update on Sojourner 1 so Ed can’t manually change the ship’s course. So NASA must step up.
But there may be silver lining. There’s liquid nitrogen on board the Russian ship. They could convert it to fuel and get to Mars after all. There are still a number of things that could go wrong, though.
First of all, there’s a defector in the crew. Last season, Rolan Baranov (Alexander Sokovikov) went to the U.S. station at Jamestown to defect and the Russians came and got him, setting off the lunar gunfight. It seems the Russians still haven’t gotten over his betrayal. Second, the engines are about to blow on the Russian ship. A bunch of Americans and one Russian die in the crash.
This episode of For All Mankind was basically alright — all plot, all mechanics. I can dig the show when it’s literally just about the process of being in space and going to other worlds. Then, there’s at least no room for outrageously silly dramatic turns.
I’m still not convinced that a movie about Gordo and Tracy would be how most of the crew of these missions sees them; they were on TV all the time, to say nothing of the fact that most of these guys worked with them when they were still alive. Furthermore, Danny’s homicidal rage at a bad movie about his parents doesn’t track. But then nothing about that little creep tracks.
I’m willing to look the other way at the “water under the bridge” way the showrunners handled Ed’s racism toward Danielle because I like the way they communicate with each other this week. And if I got hung up on every bad piece of emotional and social continuity on this show … sorry I completely lost my train of thought.
Anyway, let’s just get the rest of this season over with, shall we?
This Week in Alternate History
The fucking iPod exists. I’m so mad I want to scream. Gary Hart made Steve Jobs’ daughter hate him ahead of schedule, I guess. Come on, writers… this is just laziness.
Also, there’s a fake news program called … wait for it … Eagle News (instead of Fox News). Clever. American rock band Toadies still got together and “Possum Kingdom” is still their one hit. And A Tribe Called Quest still wrote “Can I Kick It?”
Watch For All Mankind on Apple TV+
New episodes of For All Mankind arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.